Friday, May 25, 2012

The Lucky Thirteen

For those of you who have not been keeping detailed track, I've posted reviews for 74 major science fiction award winners, which means I have 13 left to read and review. This small number (including eleven Hugos, one Nebula, and one Hugo-and-Nebula) would make you think that the end is reasonably in sight.

Avid readers of this blog may have noticed, however, that the average elapsed time between book reviews has been growing. I assure you, dear reader, that this is through no waning of my interest in the subject matter.

It is certainly due in part to an increase in the chaos and busyness of both my life and my day job (destroying worlds, of course). But it is also due to the intrinsic nature of the remaining books themselves. I have managed to whittle myself down to thirteen books that are, for one reason or another, particularly difficult to get through. To wit:
  • The book is enormous (Blackout/All Clear, Jonathon Strange
  • I am 8th in line for a hold on two library copies (Among Others)
  • The book has been checked out or missing from my library for a long, long time (Hyperion, Spin, The Snow Queen
  • The lone copy at my library is in-library use only (Double Star, Cyteen, Uplift War)
  • The book is part of a series that I dread reading another installment of (The Vor Game
  • The book is by an author that I dread reading again (Rainbow’s End, The Graveyard Book
  • I dread reading the book for other reasons (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I trust the reader will understand if my productivity slows still further as a result of these circumstances. But have faith: the thirteen will be completed. And then... who knows what. Perhaps it will be on to the nominees!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ – – – –


A Demolished Man is tolerable until about two-thirds of the way through, and then it falls apart in a frustrating mass of pretentiousness and 1950s-era pop psychology.

The book takes place in the late 21st century, after humans have colonized the moon and several nearby planets. Evolution and training have brought about a new small but powerful minority: people with ESP, or “Espers,” who can read the thoughts of others.

There is no crime anymore, since Espers can tell when one is about to be committed and prevent it from happening (Similar to the premise of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which came out five years later).

There are three classes of Esper, from the rudimentary and common class 3 up to the powerful and rare class 1. All Espers of all classes belong to a self-regulating Guild which prevents them from “peeping” people without their permission and otherwise using their abilities for evil.

In this world lives Ben Reich, president of the behemoth Monarch Utilities & Resources corporation. Reich is engaged in a heated battle for world capital domination with Craye D’Courtney of the D’Courtney Cartel. He is also haunted by nightmares of a mysterious Man With No Face which cause him to wake up in the middle of the night, screaming.

At the beginning of the book, Reich sends a coded message to D’Courtney proposing a merger. D’Courtney accepts, but Reich mis-decodes his answer as a refusal, and determines that the only thing he can do to preserve Monarch is to kill D’Courtney (which seems like a bit of a leap, but I guess Reich’s nightmare-addled sleep may be impeding his logic).

Reich constructs an elaborate plan involving bribery, deceit, and an inane tune he can use to distract his brain while it’s being “peeped,” to get in a position to murder D’Courtney. Once the murder is done, Reich then engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with Police Prefect (and class 1 Esper) Lincoln Powell, who knows that Reich did it but can’t prove it without solid physical evidence.

I give Bester credit for being a seminal SF writer. His ideas inspired legions of other authors; I can see his influence both on his contemporaries (like Philip K. Dick) and also on later writers (like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson).

The Espers and the way they influence societal structure are big examples of this. A smaller, more specific one is his use of language. Esper mental-talk is creative and flowing; it takes an almost physical form that other Espers can see. At parties, Espers weave patterns with their conversation to make it both witty and beautiful, which Bester shows by using different fonts for different people and spacing the words artfully on the page. He also uses shorthand and symbols like the ones we use in texting today; there are characters named Wyg& and @kins, for example, and people write notes using “thot” for “thought” and “2” for “too.”

This book suffers, however, from sloppiness, pretentiousness, and dicey amateur psychology. Not to mention a touch of misogyny for good measure.

In the sloppiness and pretentiousness department, Bester has a tendency to bring in new ideas throughout the book, flesh them out only cursorily, and, when they are not needed any more, make them disappear as conveniently and abruptly as they were brought in. And these distracting new plot points, locations, or characters often appear to be included solely as opportunities for Bester to show off his cleverness.

For example, in one late chapter Reich hides from the police in the “Reservation,” a jungle preserve we have never heard of before and which is explained to us in a clunky back-filling speech by a minor sergeant’s deputy given a speaking role only for that purpose. Prefect Powell brings in a group of class 1 Espers—pillars of society such as diplomats, politicians, and judges—to serve as a human radar screen to flush Reich out of the Reservation. This creates a convoluted situation in which these high-powered men are out in the jungle running into bears and wildcats and stuff and still referring to each other politely as “Senator” and “Your Honor.” I think their mental conversation is supposed to be hilariously clever but it comes off as contrived and unfunny. And the chapter itself sticks out like a sore thumb because nowhere else do we hear about the Reservation, and nowhere else do we see the class 1 Espers as a light-hearted, cooperative group.

The questionable psychological theories in the book are even more bothersome and crop up everywhere, from the ridiculous free-associative dream interpretation done by Reich’s analyst to the unhelpful and hyper-academic explanation of what is happening to a character who has a mental breakdown:
“It’s quite simple. Every man is a balance of two opposed drives…The Life Instinct and the Death Instinct. Both drives have the identical purpose…to win Nirvana. The Life Instinct fights for Nirvana by smashing all opposition. The Death Instinct attempts to win Nirvana by destroying itself. Usually both instincts fuse in the adapted individual. Under strain they defuse.”
This also includes the demolition referred to by the book’s title. Since Reich seems able to elude Powell at every turn, Powell eventually has to call for a “Mass Cathexis,” a process in which every Esper simultaneously “opens his psyche and contributes his latent energy to a pool” to be controlled by one single Esper. If the focal Esper is not destroyed in the process, he serves as a conduit for all the mental energy and can use it to control almost anything he chooses.

Powell directs all the energy in his Cathexis towards the “Demolition” of Reich. Demolition is the ultimate punishment and the last resort of law enforcement: your entire psyche is destroyed, all your reality is taken away, your memories are gone, but your consciousness remains. You then have the potential to be reborn as a different person.

Powell’s justification for doing this to Reich is difficult to follow. Powell explains that he had to “make [Reich] believe that all the universe was a puzzle for him to solve, that he was the only reality and all the rest was make-believe. This would lead him to inevitably confront his subconscious.” And Reich in particular had to be forced to confront his subconscious because he was a “galactic focal point,” a “crucial link between the positive past and the probable future.” “These men appear every so often,” Powell says, “…links between the past and the future. If they are permitted to mature…if the link is permitted to weld…the world finds itself chained to a dreadful tomorrow.”

Sorry, I don’t understand that at all, and what I think I do understand, I don’t buy, or there wasn’t enough setup for it in the book to make me buy it. It just comes across to me as sloppy.

And, last but not least of my criticisms, is the lovely way women are treated in the novel. Of course the main male characters don’t like the mature women who are in love with them; of course they like the ingénues and basket cases instead. And among the primary female characters in the book are:
  • Maria Beaumont, society dame. Behind her back she is called the “Gilt Corpse” because she is gaudy but unattractive. She is flighty and superficial and likes to play silly party games. At one point when she is unhappy her voice is described as “screeching.”
  • Duffy Wyg&, Reich’s girlfriend. She is arguably the most “positively” described woman in the book: “ the epitome of the modern career girl—the virgin seductress.” (i.e. madonna/whore.) At one point she thinks she’s being too silly and tells Reich: “punch me around a little.” 
  • Barbara D’Courtney, Craye’s daughter. She is an innocent young woman who has a breakdown after witnessing the murder of her father and has to be re-educated as if she was being raised from infancy. This re-education is done, for some reason, by Powell, who, for a good long time, has to pretend to be her “daddy.” This leads, naturally, to him falling head over heels in love with her; he says he loves her “mischievousness” and “urchin look.” Ick, anyone? 
Bester winds up the book with a self-righteous coda about how, no matter how important the individual people in it may think they are, this entire story is “minute and trivial to the infinite Eye of God.” Why, then, sir, I ask, are we bothering to read the darn book?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Caffeine Content of Selected Foods & Beverages

Caffeine content expressed in milligrams (mg). Look out for that Ben & Jerry's.

Coffee (8oz): 133mg
Tea (8oz): 53mg
Hot Cocoa (8oz): 9mg
Decaf Coffee (8oz): 5mg

Diet Coke (12oz): 47mg
Diet Pepsi (12oz): 36mg
Coke Zero (12oz): 35mg

Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch (8oz): 84mg

Hershey's Chocolate Bar (1.55oz): 9mg
Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Bar (1.45oz): 31mg

-- Seriously summarized from CSPI

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: A Case of Conscience

James Blish
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

A Case of Conscience begins with biologist and Jesuit priest Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez at the very end of a stint on the planet Lithia. He is there as part of a team of four scientists whose assignment is to evaluate the planet and give it a rating as to its usefulness and hospitability to Earth.

Lithia has a hot, muggy, tropical climate over its entire surface. It has abundant plant and animal life, including one intelligent species: twelve-foot tall reptiles who stand on their hind legs like a tyrannosaurus rex.

The Lithians’ most remarkable characteristic is that they rely completely on logic and reason. They have no faith or belief system of any kind. This, of course, bothers Father Ruiz-Sanchez quite a bit. But what really throws him for a loop is that they don’t seem to need it. The Lithians have a stable, technologically advanced, cooperative, crime-free culture, more disciplined and peaceful than ours on Earth, with no reliance whatsoever on religion.

This leads Ruiz-Sanchez to the conclusion, naturally, that Lithia and all its life forms are creations of the devil. “Only the children of God,” he says, “had been given free will, and hence were often doubtful.” Since the Lithians are not beset by doubt – they aren’t bothered by “night thoughts” such as: Why am I here? What is the purpose of existence? – they must not be children of God, and are therefore children of the devil.

In fact, he posits, Lithia may be a new devilish garden of Eden, with the Lithians as the snakes in the garden, testing us, exposing our weaknesses, using pure logic to make us question our faith.

This makes it easy for Ruiz-Sanchez to decide how to vote on Lithia: total quarantine. But, unfortunately, it also puts him in really bad stead with his church. To Catholics, only God has the power to create life, so if Ruiz-Sanchez believes that Lithia was created by the devil and therefore that the devil has “creative” power, he is therefore a heretic, and will have to be tried in Rome and probably excommunicated.

Ruiz-Sanchez’s life gets even more complicated when one of the Lithians gives him a hatchling as a farewell present, and he is honor-bound to take it back to Earth with him. His co-workers take care of while he goes to Rome; it grows rapidly into a twelve-foot-high lizard without the ethical code of its parents, gets itself a national TV show, and begins fomenting unrest among the ever-present third or so of humanity that feels cut off from society’s dominant cultural traditions.

A Case of Conscience is a short little book that raises big issues. On the back cover of my library's 2000 paperback edition, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says that it was “one of the first serious attempts to deal with religion in SF, and remains one of the most sophisticated.”

I think that is probably true. My problem was that I just wasn’t that thrilled with the story. The plot felt aimless and unresolved. It neither answered the questions it brought up nor left me with a conscious ambivalence out of which I could draw my own conclusions. It seemed like it was trying to do both, and did neither satisfactorily.

I also didn’t really like the main character or his friends. And I didn’t wholeheartedly buy the motivations of the hatchling, the priest’s enemies, and the society at large.

Older, seminal pieces of SF often have strong plot elements that appear in later pieces of fiction; it always makes me wonder, in each case, if it is a coincidence or if the more recent authors either consciously or unconsciously adapted them from the earlier books.

A minor one in this book was a scene in which mutant bees protect the main character from marauding foes, which also happened in a key scene in The Hunger Games.

But most strongly, this book kept reminding me of Orson Scott Card’s far more satisfying Speaker for the Dead. That book, too, had a quasi-religious figure as the main character who was trying to make sense of an alien world. And in both cases, the indigenous intelligent species native had a unique biology, in which they took very different physical forms as they progressed through different life stages. If Card did borrow consciously from Blish, he certainly did it in a way that not only honored the original ideas but also greatly improved on them.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: The City and The City

China Miéville
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The City & the City is, on one level, a decent but not outstanding detective novel. At the beginning of the book, a young woman is found dead in the fictional Balkan city of Besźel, and Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel policzai has to solve her murder.

What makes the book unique and interesting is the setting. The victim is discovered in Besźel, a down-at-heel, primarily Slavic city. But there is evidence that she was actually killed in Besźel’s prosperous, primarily Islamic sister city of Ul Qoma, and then later dumped in Besźel. This is a serious matter, as relations between Besźel and Ul Qoma are extremely tense.

To make matters even more complicated, Besźel and Ul Qoma are co-located. That is, the two cities are physically intermingled with each other. Some sections are total Besźel; some are total Ul Qoma; and some are “crosshatched,” meaning that streets and buildings in one city alternate with those in the other—sometimes block to block and sometimes house to house.

And if you are in one city, it is a tremendous offense not only to physically step into the other city, but also even to sense or acknowledge the people, buildings, traffic, or sounds of the other city in any way. If you do, and you are caught doing it, you can be arrested for breach, and spirited away by a sort of black ops breach enforcement unit, never to be heard from again.

Children in both cities are taught from birth to “unsee” what they aren’t supposed to see. Tourists to either city are given an intensive multi-week training program in the practice of unseeing. But even adult natives can have a hard time with it, since sometimes the only way to tell which city a thing or person is in is by the subtlest of cues—architecture, colors of clothing, or how hedges are trimmed.

Needless to say, this makes it extraordinarily difficult to conduct everyday life in either city, much less solve a murder where the person was murdered in one city and then dumped in the other. In the course of his investigation, Inspector Borlú has to use all his skills navigating the divisions and still runs afoul of breach enforcement units, militant unificationists who want to combine the two cities, and nationalist extremists on both sides who want their city to take over the other.

Reading this book, I found myself comparing the detective story (favorably) to Resurrection Men. As in Resurrection Men, the main character was an experienced, middle-aged male detective with an able younger female constable assisting him; the police hierarchy had a British flavor; and the story took place in the present day, complete with cell phones and modern attitudes and style. But The City & The City was a more interesting story, with a far more likeable detective, and it was, thank goodness, told in the past tense. The ending was a little bit deflating, but that may have just been a natural result of the mystery being explained, the unknown finally becoming known.

It was Miéville’s conception and implementation of the dual city-city, though, that made this book a real standout.

Some reviewers have called this book a “post-9/11” novel, meaning that it explores the split between Islam and Christianity. But I think the metaphor is more general than that. Besźel and Ul Qoma are like many different divided societies, past and present—Berlin, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Budapest, the Balkans, Northern Ireland. Their people live close to each other and sometimes seem alike to outsiders, but are sharply and violently divided by thought and history. Separation is perpetuated by entrenched political institutions. Prejudices strengthen with time and lack of familiarity.

What makes The City & The City a great thought experiment is that in Besźel and Ul Qoma, the separation is entirely mental. I couldn’t help but think that the inhabitants of Besźel must be aware of the Ul Qomans around them, and vice versa. I thought about how it would be so easy to commit breach by walking from a house in Besźel into an Ul Qoman one next door. And yet it hardly ever happens. For the citizens of these two cities, the mental divisions are so ingrained that they have become physically real. The inhabitants of one city really can’t see the inhabitants of the other, even in the case of danger or panic.

And, at the risk of being high-faluting, I don't think this is so far-fetched from reality. I know that there are all kinds of things—and people—in front of my face in my everyday life that might seem ridiculously obvious to others but that, for one reason or another, I don't see at all.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Budding Willow Tree

Near Canal Park, Cambridge, MA.

Monday, March 12, 2012

From Rock to Bluegrass to Country: "Fox on the Run"

In 1968 Manfred Mann recorded a new song called “Fox on the Run:”

It’s a fairly straightforward Manfred Mann late-1960s rock song. Okay, but pretty ho-hum as far as I am concerned.

Soon after though, the song caught the attention of bluegrass artists just as bluegrass music was enjoying a renaissance in the early 1970s. Bill Emerson was the pioneering bluegrass artist who popularized “Fox on the Run” to his audience. To me, the song sounds so much better as a bluegrass number. Here are the Country Gentlemen with their rendition:

The song quickly became a bluegrass standard right alongside “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Mountain Dew.” A few years later, country artist Tom T. Hall did this arrangement, which is how I first heard the song. It’s quickly become one of my favorites:

I would love to hear Wilco’s take on this one.

Friday, March 02, 2012


"If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it."

Russell Hoban
Riddley Walker

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban
Awards: John W. Campbell Memorial
Nominations: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

When I set myself the project of reading all the Nebula and Hugo award-winning novels, I told myself I would get through all the winners before reviewing those that were “just” nominees.

But, frankly, I have enjoyed some of the nominees I read in the past far more than I have enjoyed some of the winners. And when this book came across my transom, I could not resist breaking my own rules for it. I’m so very glad I did.

This book is set in England thousands of years after a 20th-century nuclear war destroyed most life on earth. Almost all literacy and technical knowledge was lost with the war, and humanity—what’s left of it—has reverted to Iron-Age-level hunting and gathering and some agriculture. The history-turned-mythology of the war is passed on through a sort of confused puppet show put on by traveling actors.

In general, the populace has a natural hostility towards education and what they call the “clevverness,” or scientific knowledge, which led to the war in the first place. But there are nevertheless people here and there who are surreptitiously working to regain that lost knowledge.

The narrator of the book, Riddley Walker, is a somewhat slow but sympathetic character who isn’t actively pursuing knowledge, but whose natural curiosity makes him want to make sense of the myths he’s being fed. This is one of the reasons he is our narrator—he is one of the few who had the desire to learn how to read and write. At the age of twelve, Riddley sees his father killed on a foraging job and has to take over his father’s role of “connexion man,” a sort of seer or interpreter of events. This special status separates him subtly from his peers and further encourages him to analyze and question what he sees around him.

Eventually, through a series of misadventures partially brought on by his inquisitiveness, Riddley discovers key pieces of information and material that could help to restore bomb-making knowledge and he has to go on the lam to escape from those who would kill him for it and/or use it for their own nefarious purposes.

The most striking thing about this book is not the story, however, but how it is written. The book is written by Riddley in his own native post-apocalyptic language, which is a semi-literate jumble of phonetic spelling, altered grammar, and long words broken down into shorter one- or two-syllable words. Some examples of the language used by Riddley and his peers:

"Down it come that girt big thing it made a jynt splosh and black muck going up slow and hy in to the air. That girt old black machine fel back in to the muck with my dad unner neath of it."

"'If you cud jus suck your thumb qwyet for a wyl and stop giving me inner fearents I cud tune in better.'"

"'To have them boats in the air which they callit them space craf and them picters on the wind which that wer viddyo and going out beyont the sarvering gallack seas.'"

It is pretty darned hard to read, especially at first. When I try to imagine why this book didn’t win the Nebula in 1981, all I can think is that the voters that year didn’t have the patience to make it through the first twenty pages or so to get used to Riddley’s speech, so they gave up and gave the award to a lesser book that was easier to read (Gene Wolfe’s Claw of the Conciliator). Fortunately, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award committee had a little more perseverance.

Hoban said that he wanted to write the book this way to slow the reader down to Riddley’s level of comprehension. And it does give you time to think about what is going on at the same pace Riddley does; it brings you into his mindset—and his world—in a way you wouldn’t necessarily get if he used contemporary English.

I found myself, naturally, comparing this book to other pieces of post-apocalyptic literature. It reminded me a tiny bit of The Road, in its desolation and occasional cannibalism, but (unlike The Road) it wasn’t so nightmarish as to be unreadable.

No, happily, the book it reminded me of the most was the great Canticle for Leibowitz. Like Leibowitz, it takes place on Earth after a devastating nuclear war has set society back several thousand years. As in Leibowitz, the story of the war and resulting devastation had been turned into barely-remembered, largely misinterpreted, and often pretty funny legend and myth. And both books suggest that humanity has a scary homing instinct; that even after such an awful war, the survivors will eventually try to regain the scientific knowledge that caused the war in the first place. You get the gnawing feeling that we will keep destroying ourselves over and over in a dreadful cycle.

Post Script: I didn’t realize until after I had read Riddley that I had already read one of Hoban’s other books long ago: The Mouse and His Child. That book was pretty dark and disturbing, too, especially for a children’s story, and I loved it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

Just got home from the critically-acclaimed movie “The Artist.” So critically-acclaimed that the ticket taker congratulated me on my selection. There was self-congratulatory applause from a few people after the movie was over as well. The well-known “standing ovation at the opera” phenomenon, whereby one signals to himself and others that he appreciates fine art.

I thought the movie was O.K. but nothing special. It is about a silent film star who loses everything when the talkies come along. Also it has the tri-gimmick of being itself silent, black and white, and in a 4:3 aspect ratio. See, just like silent movies of old. It is a movie lover's movie I guess — that always clouds the minds of film critics.

Iceland Travel Guide

Take the Flybus from the airport at Keflavik to Reykjavik and stay in the downtown hostel.

Next day, look for the smallest bicycle shop in the world. If you are not sure whether the shop you are in is small enough, keep looking. There is a smaller one. This is the one you want. 

Announce to the owner that you wish to purchase a used bike to get around Western Iceland, with the idea being that you would sell it to another traveler at the end of your journey. He will tell you this is not possible. Thank him, and leave. It is very important that you do not dispute the bike shop owner on this point. Thank him, and leave. Crucial. 

Return to the shop the next day. He will have somehow “procured” a used bike that is barely suitable for riding on a bike path, much less cross-country.

Go to Thingvellir, Geysir, and Snaefellnesness. Take dips in hot pools wherever possible. Use the cycle to cross the Kjolur Route through the Central Highlands. On the way, a lanky Pole with a runny nose will point the way on your map. This is Polski. He has been helping travelers on the Kjolur Route since the Early Age, roughly 980 - 1140 AD. 

At Hrerravellir, enjoy the hot pool. Meet young magi from CERN as you reposition the hot water hose. 

Upon your return to Reykjavik, set up your bike opposite a jewel shop on the main commercial street. Place a sign on the bike offering it for sale for kr175,000. Within five minutes, the jeweler will emerge and purchase your bike for that exact amount. 

Thus you will have re-enacted the Saga of Vilaf, of the Hill People. You may return to your home lands triumphant. A large feast will be assembled in your honor, and you will be invited to blow the horn of an ox 19 times. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Toys of the 1970s: Nerfoop

Fig. 1 – Modern-day Nerf Hoop
I have a Nerf Hoop home basketball game (Fig. 1) in my home office. I must say that the Nerf Corporation made a mistake when they went to a denser, heavier foam ball with latex coating. This new ball, which is constructed similarly to the Nerf football, is too heavy for the relatively flimsy hoop and bouncing it around can get pretty loud.

As a fifth-grader I had a Nerfoop™ basketball game (Fig. 2) which came with a less-dense foam ball. It was more like a facial sponge, and had no latex coating. This Nerf™ ball was perfectly calibrated to the strength of the hoop and allowed hours of by-myself playtime in my bedroom. (Another inexplicable corporate decision: Retiring the Nerfoop™ name.)

Fig. 2 – Nerfoop™ listing in 1977 Parker Brothers wholesale catalog
Image © Jason Liebig
My solitaire game was to stand at the opposite end of my room and try to make a long distance shot. After releasing the ball, I ran forward to grab the rebound. If my long shot missed, I had to jump in the air, catch the ball and try to put it back in the hoop, dunking if possible, before landing on the floor again.

This was in Amarillo, Texas, where our ranch-style basement-less house sat on a concrete slab, so there was minimal house-rattling from all of this jumping around. For my Nerfoop™ soundtrack I would usually play my Abba greatest hits 8-track or my K-Tel disco compilation LPs. Or my various 45s, including “Head Games” by Foreigner, “Last Train to London” by ELO, and “Rock with You” by Michael Jackson:



Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep stars as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis and Olivia Colman as her devoted if much less ambitious daughter Carol (I was really happy that this role went to Colman, who is great as Sophie Chapman in the existential British sitcom “Peep Show,” and she also appeared in an episode of “The Office (U.K.)” as a reporter who interviews and photographs a just-fired David Brent.) The film is structured as a day in the life of the present-day Thatcher as she battles the onset of a dementia that features hallucinations of her now-dead husband that lead into flashbacks into her own life story. By the end of the movie she finally breaks through to reality again and packs up all of his clothes for donation to Oxfam.

Thatcher is portrayed as someone who just never, ever gets discouraged and who has zero patience for those who do. No wonder: she is always the lone woman in a roomful of skeptical men and learns from an early age that she has to fight hard for their respect. She is shown adoring her grocer father, who was active in Conservative Party politics in their constituency of Grantham and who strongly encouraged his daughter’s political instincts. Her mother is portrayed as a frightened non-entity. The teenaged Margaret Roberts is laughed at by the other girls because she has to work in her dad’s shop and because she is so serious. When she meets husband-to-be Denis Thatcher at a gathering of local Conservative bigwigs he is attracted to her because she acts like it never occurs to her that she cannot or should not hold her own talking politics with the men. The film shows Denis getting frustrated with her ambition only once; otherwise he is a typical political spouse: supportive, encouraging, a confidant, and close adviser. (Whether he ever has a job of his own, and if so, what it is, is left out of the story completely.) Their relationship is shown to be one of mutual respect and tenderness.

Another important male booster in Thatcher’s life is a fellow Conservative MP in the party leadership who convinces her to run for party leader and gets her to change her style a bit in ways that are apparently successful. After launching Thatcher’s rise but before she becomes Prime Minister he is killed by an IRA car bomb, which provides some context for her no-compromise-with-terrorists-or-Argentinian-juntas resolve. (Nice detail: in a private meeting with her advisers about the Falklands she pronounces “junta” with a hard j; I’m not sure if that was a typical British lack of effort with foreign words, ignorance on Thatcher’s part (very unlikely), or simply her way of indicating disdain.)

Her political views are covered a bit, but not extensively. The Conservative program is portrayed in the best possible light: Hard work should pay off for the yeoman shopkeeper. Of course she can make that theme work because that was in fact her background, and she does chafe against the more high-born men of the Conservative Party. But the harsh austerity policies she enacted after she became Prime Minister in 1979 aren’t really covered in great depth. The Labour side of things is represented via chaotic documentary footage of the Brixton riots and the raging from the Opposition in the Commons, which of course just looks like a roomful of angry men yelling at a woman.

Thatcher is never shown to waver and is always the most forceful and in-command person in the room. The male courtiers surrounding her are often shown to be callow and weak, too ready to compromise. There is a key scene during the most intense part of the Falklands War where she has to decide whether or not to sink an Argentine cruiser. The military men say yes, the political men say no. She takes a moment, sets her jaw, and firmly says, “Sink it.”

I suppose the movie qualifies as a hagiography because Thatcher is really never shown to make a public misstep of any kind. In 1990 she is deposed by her own lieutenants. The film posits that this is because in a post-Cold-War world, her imperious management style has run its course and begins to border on the abusive.

“The Iron Lady” is by no means an historical document, but it is a compelling more-or-less true story of a woman who overcomes sexism to rise to perhaps the third most powerful office in the world, an office she uses to utterly transform the British welfare state and, along the way, authoritatively direct a relatively splendid little war. It is also an affecting love story and a sensitive portrayal of the toll that aging takes on even the most competent person. A good video rental; not at all necessary to see it on the big screen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Philip José Farmer
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The main character of To Your Scattered Bodies Go is Richard Burton (the 19th century adventurer, swordsman, and spy, not the 20th century actor who married Elizabeth Taylor twice). The book begins with Burton waking up – which is odd, because he could have sworn that he had died or was just about to die – in an enormous chamber filled with thousands of inert, floating, sleeping bodies arranged in a grid pattern in every direction as far as he can see. All of the bodies, including his, are naked, hairless, and slowly spinning around a central head-to-toe axis.

As soon as Burton wakes up he starts flailing around, attracting the attention of two guys who are apparently monitoring the sleeping bodies. They zip over to him in a sort of floating canoe and zap him with a device that renders him unconscious again.

The next time he wakes up, he is still naked and hairless, but lying on a grassy plain next to a river, and there are a lot of other people lying on the plain near him. They all gradually wake up and realize that (a) they all appear to have been resurrected from the dead; (b) they are all in their own bodies as they were when they were about 25 years old; (c) they are from all different parts of the world and from all different times in history. The largest component of their group comes from 1890 Trieste, but there are also a few people from Victorian England and random scatterings of other humans, including an australopithecine.

Sir Richard Burton
Burton, a natural leader, becomes the de facto head of the troupe as they put the pieces of a new life together and try to figure out why and where they are there.

The first thing they learn is that they are not the only ones there. The world they are in, which they name Riverworld, contains thousands, if not millions of people, all living up and down the banks of the river, which itself may be thousands, if not millions of miles long.

The next thing Burton begins to suspect (aided by his memory of the chamber of sleeping people) is that they are all part of a big experiment being run by Other Beings. And that these Others have developed a technology to record a soul (or something equivalent), and have done so for all humans who have ever existed, and have then created this world into which to bring them back to life for some nefarious purpose.

Burton, in his resurrected state as in life, tends to get stir-crazy staying in one place too long. He also really wants to find the beings that put them in this situation and give them what for. So he heads off on a long voyage upriver to find its source. He travels for hundreds of days and sees thousands of resurrected humans of different types.

Along the way he acquires a new human nemesis: a plump egomaniac who turns out to be Hermann Göring, who has formed an alliance with former Roman emperor Tullius Hostilius and is running their little troupe of resurrectees with an iron hand. He also attracts the attention of the mysterious Others, who begin sending agents out after him, so he has to spend a considerable portion of the second half of the book on the run.

This book is actually the first installment in Farmer’s Riverworld series. I didn’t realize that when I read it, so I have to admit I found the story, and particularly the ending, dissatisfying. Burton has a series of smallish adventures, but there is no major climactic showdown which resolves anything. The big issues – who the Others are, how Burton may be able to subvert it, and whether he should – are all left unanswered. And there is also a tantalizing note at the end saying that I would get to meet Samuel Clemens if I read the next installment, which is frustrating since I have no intention of reading the next installment right now.

But Burton is an excellent central character. He is charismatic and opinionated. And the skills he picked up in a lifetime of worldly adventure (espionage, hand-to-hand combat, and a knowledge of many languages, to name a few) serve him well in Riverworld.

And the book certainly creates a fun thought experiment. Riverworld is a uniquely controlled environment with strict parameters (much like Ringworld, although Riverworld is not as rich or as well-architected). Within that setting, Farmer can create weird juxtapositions of famous people from any time in history and explore how they will interact.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Science Fiction Themes: A Case Study (Revised and Expanded 1/6/12)

Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels that I have reviewed so far and the themes they explore, arranged into a lovely chart.

Click to enlarge. You may need to click twice to expand it to its full size.

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